Putting the Person in the Politician

ALTHOUGH THE PAST year’s events seem to have turned everyone into a hardcore political junkie spring loaded to debate congressional votes or the details of healthcare reform, our political process is rarely featured on movie screens. Today’s famous stars have been eager to use awards shows as a bully pulpit for their views, but are wary of inserting politics into their films in anything other than an oblique manner. This is nothing new. With rare exceptions, filmmakers have always preferred exploring politics metaphorically rather than digging into the messy nuts and bolts of actual public policy. When films do center on politics, they generally focus on idealized tales of heroic crusaders fighting corrupt politicians. Any meaningful exploration of the underlying systemic issues tend to fade into the background.

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Perhaps because the protagonist operates deep in the trenches of the political process rather than being a simplistic hero or villain, Joseph Cedar’s Kafka-esque comedy Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer offers an unusually timely and vivid window into the disturbing inner mechanics of modern politics. As he showed in his 2011 Footnote, about a conflict between Talmudic scholars, writer-director Cedar has a talent for finding both humor and pathos in subject matter that might initially seem dry and unpromising. He also has a novelistic ability to capture the complexity of a social institution without losing sight of the essential humanity of his characters. These qualities prove vital in Norman, where Cedar manages to illuminate the complex realities of modern politics, as well as the very real impact political decisions have on people’s lives.

Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is that annoying guy you meet at a party who won’t let you escape until he gets your business card, then calls the next day for a favor. For years, Norman has made an extremely modest living in New York City as one of the anonymous small-time operators at the intersection of business and politics who helps make deals happen by connecting the right people. Norman’s luck changes when he befriends, and impulsively buys a beautiful and very expensive pair of shoes for, Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a mid-level Israeli politician visiting New York on a trade mission. Three years later, Eshel becomes Israel’s prime minister and Norman finds himself dangerously propelled into the heights of political power and intrigue.

Gere provides the film’s heart and soul with his brilliant performance as the initially annoying but ultimately irresistible hustler caught in the biggest deal of his career. But what makes the lm powerful is Cedar’s sardonic evocation of the ruthless and amoral nature of the system that lies beneath politicians’ platitudinous words. After a U.S. presidential election that often seemed to be simply a referendum on the sanity and trustworthiness of the two candidates, Cedar’s film offers a strong and surprisingly entertaining reminder that the problems in our political system go far deeper than any individual politician.

dylan skolnick

Dylan Skolnick lives in the East, but loves a good western. He can be found most days and many evenings at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, where he is co-director (www.cinemaartscentre.org).